Hands on: WatchOS 3 is the OS Apple always intended

For Apple Watch users, the third time is the charm.

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New and improved apps

Old apps not only run smoother in watchOS 3, but new ones are available, including Find My Friends, Reminders, and Breathe (which reminds you to slow down and take a breather, literally).

Existing apps have also been updated with new functions. The Timer app now displays buttons for quick countdowns; Maps gives you easy access to directions to work and home as well as Search, My Location and Nearby points of interest; and the Heart Rate Glance has been replaced with a Heart Rate app that pretty much does the same thing.

The Messages app, in particular, gets a big upgrade. It's compatible with the Screen and Bubble effects found on devices running on iOS 10, and messages sent with the effects display properly, including animations. For example, if someone is trying to send you an Invisible Text or a Shooting Star, you'll get the message accurately on the Watch.

Messages gif Michael deAgonia

The updated Messages app offers a number of new special effects -- like the "Lasers" shown here -- you can embed with texts.

If you're hoping to send animated effects from the Watch -- you can't. But the app has been revamped to offer more than just canned responses, emojis and Siri dictations; it now offers Digital Touch and a new Scribble input method.

If Digital Touch -- which lets you send sketches or a variety of effects from your Watch to a friend's -- doesn't ring a bell, it's okay. The feature was effectively hidden in watchOS 1 and 2 and thus, rarely used.

Digital Touch has been moved from the now-defunct Favorites section to a prominent place beside the Siri and Emojis reply buttons in Messages. I've used this feature more times in the past three months than I did the entire time I was using previous versions of the OS.

Scribble is the name of the newest way to input text on the Watch; with it, you can use your finger to draw letters on the Watch's display to write out quick responses. This is a neat trick when Siri dictation isn't an option and you don't want to pull out your phone. For quick responses, Scribble is quite handy; I think I use this new feature the most.

Two other apps have great potential. The Home app, with HomeKit support, allows you to control home automation devices with taps or with Siri. And just as the Watch encourages standing at least once an hour, and the Activity Rings remind us to be more active, Breathe is there to encourage you to relax.

Every once in a while, depending on the setting, the Watch will tap your wrist and prompt you to take it slow for a minute or two. Once you've agreed to the prompt, the Breathe app walks you through a simple breathing exercise, tapping you on the wrist in distinct patterns to guide you through deep inhales and exhales.

I like that Apple included this; if the Watch is going to monitor activity and well-being, it makes sense that it should be able to tell you to slow down a minute.

Open that lock!

Some of the Watch's best features involve integration with other devices. You can set up your Watch to unlock when you unlock your iPhone, for example. And watchOS 3 now lets your Watch interact with your Mac.

In the past, I've touted MacID as the one third-party app that every Mac-owning Apple Watch user should have. It uses proximity (via Bluetooth) to trigger the desktop screen saver when you leave your Mac, and when you return, it logs you into the Mac before you sit down. Although MacID had some reliability issues, the concept was smart. Apple clearly agreed, because there is similar functionality between watchOS 3 and macOS Sierra -- Apple's new desktop OS that arrives next Tuesday.

On a Mac running Sierra, there is an option to automatically log into your Mac, based on the signal strength of the Watch. Upon waking from sleep or screen saver, if an authenticated Watch is close enough -- say, within a few feet -- the Mac will automatically log you in, bypassing the login screen.

The Mac can't yet tell when you step away like MacID can, but this is a good start.

Fitness and health

Fitness has always been marketed as one of the Watch's tent-pole features. After a year of using watchOS 1 and 2, I came away mightily disappointed because the Watch didn't accurately track my heart rate during weight-lifting workouts. The inaccurate heart sensor and the lack of social features for extra motivation was fairly annoying. (To be clear: I never really had a problem with the heart monitor for tracking outdoor runs, basketball or treadmill sessions, just weight-lifting.)

WatchOS 3 share exercise2

The Workout app offers even more social activity.

I'm happy to say that this issue has been fixed in watchOS 3. Not only is the heart rate sensor more accurate, but the Workout app also features additional profiles for even more activities, including profiles specifically for strength training, basketball, hiking, and other activities. My one major gripe with the Apple Watch has finally been resolved; for that, I'm thrilled.

The Workout app has been updated to allow even more metric details to be displayed at once, and running workouts can be set to pause when you do; the workout resumes when it sees you've started moving again.

There are even basic social features in Activity; in this case, after a workout is completed or an achievement has been earned, people you specify can be alerted. Once alerted, said people can even engage in smack talk, or offer words of encouragement via canned quick responses.

Lastly, but for many most importantly: WatchOS 3 now supports Apple Watch users in wheelchairs, including various pushing techniques to track their movement. And to keep them moving, wheelchair users even get a time-to-roll alert in the place of stand alerts.

Bottom line

In addition to the changes I've highlighted, there are scores of other updates and tweaks in watchOS 3 for users to discover.

What seems obvious is that Apple has paid attention to comments and complaints about earlier versions of the OS and has worked to make this version more coherent, easier to navigate and faster. The result for Watch owners will be a smoother, more satisfying experience.

WatchOS 3 really does breathe new life to this device -- and should work even better on the more powerful Apple Watch Series 2 devices that arrive on Friday. With watchOS 3, my own first-gen Watch doesn't just feel like a new device, it also feels a lot more Apple-like.

If you are an Apple Watch owner, run, don't walk, to install this upgrade. It isn't just recommended, it's an absolute requirement to get the most out of your Watch.

This story, "Hands on: WatchOS 3 is the OS Apple always intended" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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